Review of CREATURE – Shaun Tan’s Book of Paintings and Drawings

Storybook art takes the stage, but comments are reduced to an afterthought

shaun tan creature book review
shaun tan creature book review
Creature by Shaun Tan
A book in two parts
Inspiring art abounds, but compartmentalized comments leave readers with a lot of work to do.
Get the book

“The first thing I remember drawing is a creature,” reads the first line of Shaun Tan’s latest book. Creature compiles over 25 years of the artist’s drawings and paintings featuring the quirky creations Tan’s known for.

The Australian artist, writer, and film director is best known for his award-winning illustrated books. His works often explore the themes of the urban and natural environment and the relationship between humans and animals.

Tan has illustrated over 50 books, including The Arrival, Tales from Outer Suburbia and more. He has also directed two animated films, winning an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for The Lost Thing.

His style usually revolves around whimsical characters in dream-like settings. There’s often a rustic tone with Tan’s work that adds a sense of honesty and texture to otherwise otherworldy scenes.

shaun tan book of art review

The beasts inside

Creature is comprised of over 220 pages and includes a span of art between 1995 and 2021. The book is categorized into four major sections:

  • Lost Things
  • Companions
  • Myth and Metaphor
  • Birds

Each section begins with a written passage delving into the Tan’s artistic journey and inspiration.

Companions, for example, starts with a story about Tan hearing the word “creature” for the first time watching a late night monster movie with his father.

After the initial text, the book is definitely all about the art. Almost every page is a full spread featuring a drawing or painting, plus the art’s title.

shaun tan creature book

No years, mediums or comments from the artist appear alongside the art.

That comes later…

Don’t skip the afterword

In an unusual move, all the additional details about each piece have been moved to the back of the book in a section called “artwork notes”.

To find out the year or the story behind a piece, you’ll need to check it’s title and then scan through the back and find its entry there. Tan explains his reasoning for this format as:

I’m often wary of commenting on specific images in case my ideas overly influence a reader’s own impressions, which of course should always come first.

Shaun Tan on the book’s lack of initial commentary

The unfortunate part of splitting the book this way is that Tan’s comments about each image are actually quite interesting. Every piece has a story behind, which he lays out along with the year, medium and dimensions.

He clearly spent a lot of time creating this commentary, so it’s a shame many readers are likely to overlook it.

Almost all the work in this book has been rendered in pencil, pastel crayon, acrylic and oil paint on paper, canvas and board, which are the same materials I learned to use as a high school art student.

Shaun Tan on his choice of art materials

Final thoughts on Creature

If you enjoy storybook-style art and whimsical character design, you’re sure to appreciate the pieces in Creature. Despite the book’s split formatting, the drawings, paintings, sketches and reflections from the author are more than enough to inspire.

© Efrain Malo

Fuel your creativity!

Tips, resources and inspiration delivered straight to your inbox.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.